The holiday season is full of wonderful traditions, events, and treats. However, it can also be a time of significant stress.

“As we age, the physical and emotional effects caused by stress only continue to grow more pronounced, ” explains Julia Baechle, MOTR/L, CDP, an occupational therapist and Vice President of Clinical Quality and Support at EmpowerMe Wellness. “Seniors need to be very intentional about how they  avoid, manage, and cope with stress.”

In today’s post, Julia shares her expertise on why stress is particularly problematic for seniors, how to avoid it, and what to do when it creeps in.

The Problem with Stress

Stress is more than just uncomfortable and unenjoyable; it can also cause, prolong, or exacerbate other health problems. Left unchecked, stress can:

  • Cause declines in heart health and lung capacity, especially among sedentary seniors. This can keep them from accommodating the body’s natural stress response.
  • Compromise executive functioning, causing difficulty concentrating and even short-term memory problems.
  • Lead to difficulty sleeping, which can cause decreased strength and endurance and increased risk of falls and chronic diseases.
  • Decrease immune responses to disease. This may lead to increased illness, fatigue, and strain on the body. Respiratory illness can also result from a lack of physical activity during times of stress.
  • Contribute to poor eating habits. This is particularly important for older adults, as weight loss can have a negative impact on overall health.
  • Stress has been shown to delay wound healing.

How to Avoid Stress

Fortunately, stress can be avoided and minimized with a little intentionality and planning. As a bonus, the activities that help us avoid and minimize stress can be enjoyable in and of themselves. Here are four activities that help better position seniors to deal with stress:

  1. Regular Exercise

Why: During the holiday season, particularly in cold climates, it’s easy to choose warm and cozy activities over exercise. But physical activity increases endorphins, raises self-esteem, and improves mood.

What: Make sure you have at least 15 minutes of exercise each day. Great options for seniors include walking, yoga, chair exercises, dancing and swimming.

  1. A Healthy Diet

Why: We all know eating healthy can be particularly challenging during the holiday season. Eating junk food and sugar creates physical stress for our bodies that adds to our overall stress load. On the other hand, choosing foods high in nutrients improves the body’s ability to handle stress.

What: Drink plenty of water and seek out fruits and vegetables that are packed with nutrients. Of course, it is okay to indulge in special treats, but make a plan for moderation.

  1. Practice Gratitude

Why: Focusing on the things that bring joy and gratitude actually make us feel happier. In the busyness of the holiday season, it is easy to focus on the to-do list and not take time to appreciate what we have. Practicing daily gratitude not only helps mentally cope with stress but also affects our bodies. For example, one study found that gratitude was linked to fewer signs of heart disease.

What: Keep a gratitude journal. Each day, take time to identify three things to be thankful for.

  1. Plan for Joy

Why: Including enjoyable activities in your schedule helps manage stress by providing something to look forward to. Depending on the activity, you’ll also be boosting happiness-inducing hormones that help cope with stress.

What: Plan to include at least one activity per day that brings you joy. Need some ideas?

Call a friend or family member, play your favorite game, sit outside and watch for birds, work a puzzle, snuggle a pet, or listen to music you enjoy.

Responding to Stress

Despite our best efforts, stress can still creep in. Here are four  activities and exercises to help deal with stress:

  1. Deep Breaths:

Practice deep breathing exercises throughout the day. Move your body into a more relaxed state, focus on breathing slowly and filling your lungs fully with air before exhaling. Put a hand on your stomach or count:inhale for four seconds, hold for two seconds, and exhale for six seconds.)

  1. Meditate:

Take time to quiet your mind and meditate. You can utilize technology for guided meditation and stress relief techniques — for example, there are a number of smartphone apps dedicated to helping people better practice mindfulness.

  1. Stretch

Stretching is a great way to alleviate muscle tension that can occur as part of the stress response. Stretching exercises produce “proprioceptive input,” which is the scientific term for sensory information that activates the joints and muscles. This kind of input not only makes our bodies more responsive to movement, but it also creates a calming effect for our minds!

  1. Utilize Your Senses

Listen to your favorite music, get a massage, use aromatherapy diffusers or lotions, watch a movie, or enjoy a healthy treat. You can find stress relief can come from engaging any one of your five senses.

Experiencing stress but don’t know where to start? Your primary care physician  can help identify stress coping strategies and activities that are right for you! Plus, residents of EmpowerMe Wellness’ partner communities can turn to their EmpowerMe team to find new ways to mange and respond to stress!